Why Music Education Matters

From an interview with Urban Prairie Waldorf School’s music teacher Dan Galat

Music education is a core part of our curriculum at Urban Prairie Waldorf School. The arts, which form an integral aspect of Waldorf education, allow all students, whatever their age or ability, to be creative, develop healthy self-expression, feel confident in exploring new ideas and concepts, and to work and play with each other with kindness, curiosity, and inclusivity. All our students from Third Grade and up learn at least one musical instrument, participate in their class orchestra, and create music together.

Our two music teachers, Dan Galat and Kelly Quesada, are passionate about providing a high standard of music education for all our students. They continually work to address key pedagogical challenges such as how to keep students interested and motivated, and how to make every student in the classroom feel that there is a place for them. They recently presented some of their latest teaching practices at the American String Teachers’ Conference, where they also spoke about their unique position as teachers in a Waldorf school, where there is a holistic, creative approach to education that values music education for every child. In delivering the music program at Urban Prairie, their core aims are for the students to learn through curiosity and exploration, and to feel empowered in the process of creating their own music.

Dan, who was interviewed for this blog post, has taught at Urban Prairie for six years and has been involved in music education for nineteen years. He has two degrees in violin performance and actively performs as a professional freelance musician in Chicago, where he is currently the concertmaster of the Chicago Composers Orchestra. By the age of fifteen, he already had a full studio of 20 violin students, and his continual enthusiasm is reflected in every student he teaches.

The Inclusivity of Music Education

Dan firmly believes that every child can play music, no matter what their age or skill level. One of his top priorities is to ensure every student in his music classes knows there is a place for them there, and that their contributions are valued and important. While some students already play an instrument to a high standard and others have very little formal musical knowledge, they all work together to create improvisations, soundscapes, and compositions. Each student is free to experiment with sounds, tone qualities, and rhythms either on their own instrument or from a choice of instruments provided by the school. They can also find other ways to make sounds; with a bit of creative thinking, almost anything has the potential to become an instrument. “We’re exploring music together as co-collaborators, so although there is a plan, it’s also important to meet the needs of the group, which will differ each time,” said Dan.

Dan and Kelly’s music program inspires the students to want to improve their technique on their chosen instruments because it enables them to be better musicians; they become free to experiment using their instruments and can apply what they learn and practice to group improvisations and their own individual compositions. There is therefore a technical pathway in the music program in which all students participate, and they are encouraged to practice every day. Many students also take private individual lessons, and there is a scholarship program to make learning an instrument accessible for everyone.


Meeting The Needs of the Child Through Music

Dan’s passion for making every student feel included and valued in his music classes is evident when he speaks about students with additional needs, and how music helps them to develop skills and flourish both in the classroom and with their peers. Music classes give them the freedom to explore a wide range of different sounds, harmonies, and rhythmic patterns. This helps many of our students on the autism spectrum to experience a lessening of their auditory processing issues over time since they have control of the sounds they are producing, and as they learn to recognize and feel comfortable with a wider range of tones and volumes, they begin to relax in the classroom environment, which was previously overwhelming for them at times. Their listening skills become more finely tuned, allowing them to better understand instructions from their teacher in class. In addition, making music with their peers gives them a new frame of reference with positive social relations. “It’s a beautiful, healthy, constructive way [for the students] to relate to each other,” said Dan.

Children with attentional priorities are also well met with the weekly offering of music classes. Our students with ADHD, for example, often feel drawn to music since it allows them to use their energy in an explorative, playful, and focused way. They’re fascinated by and in tune with small variations in rhythm, pitch, and volume. They are highly motivated and are therefore able to focus a large amount of energy and curiosity on a single goal. Over time, these students develop a larger attention span and can concentrate for longer during their other lessons. 

Developing Skills For Life Through Music

In our orchestra classes, which start in Third Grade, our students learn skills that will improve their learning as they progress through the grades. There are necessarily a lot of rules in these classes, such as taking turns, listening to who is talking, and learning to play together in a group in an organized fashion. The students benefit from this since they learn to know what to expect, settle into the routine, and feel held and safe within these structures. This releases anxiety for them, and they are better able to concentrate and enjoy making music together. These disciplinary skills are essential for a healthy classroom culture, which in turn enables the students to learn more efficiently and to be respectful of each other and their teachers.

Making music also helps our students develop listening skills, which help them be open to knowledge, stay focused for longer, be careful and thoughtful, and listen deeply to the world around them. This enables them to learn languages more quickly and easily (at Urban Prairie, we teach Spanish and Mandarin Chinese) because they are sensitive to rhythmic patterns and changes in vocal pitch. Dan also sees plenty of evidence in his classes that the development of listening skills makes his students well-rounded learners who are compassionate and curious. This makes them ready and excited to learn, which means they are more engaged in their other lessons and therefore perform well in core subjects like math and English.

In Waldorf education, students learn independence, responsibility, and leadership early on so that they are not solely dependent on a teacher. Our Fourth Grade students have recently elected a conductor from among their peers for their class orchestra, ready for their performance at the end-of-year concert. Dan believes it is important for the students to feel in control of their education, especially with music, since some young people can become disenfranchised 

with it when it’s taught solely in a classical way (reading and performing the notes on a page and following the instructions of a conductor). Therefore, byMiddle School, the students have formed independent groups in which they are responsible for practicing unsupervised some of the time. This teaches them to be responsible for their own musicianship, to be good leaders, to help and support each other, to listen to each other, to be creative, and to collaborate with everyone in their group. Developing these skills sets our students up forHigh School and beyond, enabling them to focus on their academic studies and college life since they already know how to balance and manage their time, how to relate to and work with others, and how to prepare for upcoming performances, exams, and presentations.